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Persa gains mental toughness from injury

7/29/2011

CHICAGO -- Dan Persa needed to know how, where and why he ruptured his Achilles tendon against Iowa last season.

Persa obtained the game film, fast-forwarded it to the specific play, watched it, hit rewind, watched it again, slowed it down, hit rewind and repeated that process until he felt he completely grasped the moment his junior season ended.

Persa took away one thing from all his viewings: What happened was a fluke. He hopped backward as he often did; his foot landed incorrectly; his Achilles tendon popped.

Not that Persa could have changed what occurred, but his motive for going back and meticulously watching the play was to make sure he couldn’t have prevented it. If the injury had been caused by his own mistake, he wanted to learn from it and make sure it never happened again.

For those who truly know Dan Persa, that is who he is. And it’s because of that sort of preparation, attention to detail and work ethic, Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald and Persa’s teammates have no worries he’ll return to his All-Big Ten form this season.

“The thing about Dan, he impresses me all the time,” Northwestern senior cornerback Jordan Mabin said during the Big Ten media days on Friday. “Not only does he talk the talk, he walks the walk. He’s in the weight room. He’s in training room. He’s doing all the right things. He’s a gym rat. I have no doubt when he gets back, he’ll do what he has to do.”

Persa holds no doubts either now, but there were times during his recovery he was less optimistic.

The morning after the Iowa game when he realized he wouldn’t be playing football again for some time was a difficult one. The periods during which he couldn’t walk and could barely put pressure on his right foot were trying.

“Just knowing you can do something mentally, but physically not being able to do it,” said Persa, who passed for 2,581 yards and 15 touchdowns last season. “During rehab, not being able to do something because your leg’s not strong enough, that was tough. I think at the same time the things in life you couldn’t do. Couldn’t go on the beach, couldn’t run around the beach. I would have to think of everything before I did it because I couldn’t risk aggravating it in any way.”

To his credit, Persa was quick to recognize those moments where he was feeling sorry for himself and snapped himself out of it. Often, he immediately jumped into something that worked toward improving his leg.

“I think people underestimate once you get out of that whole funk how fast your body heals, how fast your body remembers how to do what it did before,” Persa said. “The progress you can make in one day is pretty encouraging.”

Persa’s recovery has been right on schedule. He will enter Northwestern’s fall camp 100 percent healed and will spend the next month adding strength and conditioning and getting acclimated to football again. He’s expected to be ready to start when Northwestern opens its season at Boston College on Sept. 3.

Fitzgerald was especially excited to get Persa into camp and allow him more freedom.

“It’s going to be fun,” Fitzgerald said. “I’m really looking forward to him taking this next step. He’s chomping at the bit to play football again. I couldn’t be more happy, more excited for him that it’s right here. I think he’s tired of people asking the question, ‘How are you? How are you?’ And he just wants to get out and lead and go play.”

Persa said he actually hasn’t minded people asking him how he was. He understands they’re all curious.

Another question that has often arisen with Persa’s injury is what he’s learned from the whole process. It was posed to him a few times during the Big Ten media days. He was asked what he learned from standing on the sideline and watching the last three games, and he answered it honestly.

“Maybe the moment … I don’t know,” Persa said. “It’s tough. I didn’t like it that much. I didn’t really learn anything.”

Persa, however, admitted that he now knows he needs to be a smart quarterback, which includes being less daring when on the run.

“That was kind of my safety net,” said Persa of scrambling. “That’s why I’m looking at this injury as a blessing in disguise. It’ll still be there, but I don’t think I’ll be thinking about running as much.

“This injury, there’s a lot of things you can take from it, what it’s worth. You can get down on yourself, but I’m looking at it as a situation for me to really improve in the position and take my game to the next level.”